With its plethora of monuments, palaces, mosques and churches, Cairo is truly a city where the past is always present. Despite the proximity of the Pyramids, Cairo is, in fact, not a Pharaonic city. The earliest known settlement is Babylon Fort, established by the Romans. Babylon, the symbol of Roman power for many years, was later used as a safe place for Egyptian Copts fleeing from the atrocities of the Roman Emperor. It is even said that the Holy Family settled in the area. Many of the churches that were built in and around the Fortress, such as Al Muallaqua (Hanging) Church and Abu Serga can still be seen today.
The area's history turned a new chapter when Muslim warriors from the Arab peninsula (now known as Saudi Arabia) swept across Egypt conquering the Romans and Persians. The Muslims, commanded by Amr Ibn al-As, laid siege to Babylon Fort in 642 CE. Realizing the power and influence of the Arab Muslims, who had also earned the support of the Egyptian peasants and townspeople, Cyrus, the viceroy of Egypt, decided to relinquish the Fortress to the Muslim army.
The city subsequently underwent many changes of rule passing from the Abbasids to the Tulunids (responsible for the Mosque of Ibn Tulun) and then to the Fatimids. It was the latter who established what is now known as Islamic Cairo in 969. There are many fine remains of the Fatimid's reign including Al Azhar Mosque and the gates of Bab al Futuh. A serious threat was posed to the Fatimids in 1168 CE by the arrival of the Crusaders who advanced into Egypt from Palestine. Eventually, the Fatimids were forced into exile by the Seljuk Turks, commanded by Salah ad-Din (known also as Saladin). He made a lasting impression on the city by constructing the Citadel, close to the Moukkattam Hill. Upon his death, Saladin was succeeded by his brother Al-Adel, who in turn was succeeded by his son Al-Kamel. The Ayyoubid dynasty finally came to an end when Al-Kamel's nephew, Al-Saleh, died in 1250.
Power was seized by the Mamelukes, a Turkish slave-soldier class. During their 267 year reign, the Mamelukes turned Cairo into the intellectual and cultural center of the Muslim world. Their achievements include the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Quala'un, the al-Nasir Muhammed Madrasa/Mausoleum and the Wikala of al-Ghouri. They were also successful soldiers, gaining control of Syria and Palestine. The prosperity brought by the Mamelukes came to an end when Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route of the Cape of Good Hope. The new route helped the European merchants, who used to cross Egypt, to dodge the heavy taxes demanded by Cairo. The Mameluke dynasty finally crumbled when the Turkish Sultan Selim entered Cairo in 1516.
Istanbul, the seat of the rulers of the Ottoman empire, swept the carpet from under the feet of Cairo, reducing it to the status of a province. Trade revenues were sent to Istanbul, together with taxes collected from the Egyptian population. The Mamelukes were allowed to live on and maintained some power but they were deposed by Napoleon in the late 18th Century.
After the departure of the French troops, following their dramatic defeat at the hands of the British navy in Abu Qir Battle, the British, commanded by General Frazer, invaded Egypt in 1807. They were resisted by the Egyptian nationalist movement and locals. In the meantime, an Albanian officer named Mohammed Ali Pasha was appointed ruler of Egypt by the Ottoman Sultan. Supported by the Egyptians and the Mamelukes, Mohammed Ali Pasha succeeded in defeating the British in 1811. He then firmly established his control on the country and disposed of his Mameluke opponents in a sinister massacre.
Mohammed Ali Pasha further expanded Egypt and constructed many buildings - all heavily influenced by European architectural design. Most notable among these is the Mohammed Ali Mosque - a very imposing structure. He was also responsible for developing Egypt's infrastructure with the Barrages on the Nile, locally known as Qanater Khayyeria; railway networks extending between Cairo, Alexandria and Upper Egypt; and military and engineering schools.
The Mohammed Ali Pasha dynasty was thrown into turmoil when Khedive Said, who ascended to the country's throne in 1854, borrowed a huge sum of money from European countries to dig the Suez Canal, a waterway connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Khedive Said, notorious for his lavish lifestyle, also borrowed money to build villas and grand palaces, (including the Abdeen Palace, now a museum).
Unable to honor its financial commitments to European countries, Egypt came under the supervision of Britain and France, which finally led to its occupation by Great Britain. The country was liberated after a group known as the Free Officers staged a revolution on July 23, 1952. They forced King Farouk to relinquish his throne and go into exile and also dismissed the British Occupational Forces. Over the last few decades, Cairo has enjoyed mixed fortunes. The assassination of Sadat and terrorist attacks have undoubtedly left their mark on the country as a whole. Still, the city is gradually picking itself up; the government is stable, the economy is steady and tourism is on the rise again. This renewed confidence has had a very positive effect on the city's cultural and entertainment scene with new venues, like the Cairo Opera House, being opened all the time.